Coping with cancer: a brief report on stress and coping strategies in medical students dealing with cancer patients

Psychooncology. 2011 Feb;20(2):219-23. doi: 10.1002/pon.1751.


Background: This pilot study explored factors associated with stress in medical students during their initial clinical contact with cancer patients, in particular identifying stress levels and coping strategies used.

Methods: A total of 80 medical students at The University of Birmingham Medical School, UK, completed retrospective self-report questionnaires measuring socio-demographics, potential stressors and coping strategies (using the Brief COPE inventory). Statistical analysis followed data collection.

Findings: Of all socio-demographic categories, female gender correlated with the highest stress score (p<0.05). The most stressful situations reported related to the patient's condition, the biopsychosocial effects of the cancer on the patient and his/her family, and breaking bad news. A combination of problem- and emotion-focussed strategies were used to manage stress; and the extent of their usage was significantly related to individual stress levels (p<0.01) in both instances.

Interpretation: Medical students in an oncology setting experience moderate stress and utilise a combination of problem- and emotion-focussed coping strategies to combat this stress. A greater use of both coping strategies was seen in students experiencing higher levels of stress. This may suggest a relative lack of effective coping skills. In light of this, the implementation of coping strategy training as a part of the medical course and/or support groups may be beneficial.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sex Distribution
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United Kingdom
  • Young Adult